March 23, 2011

The Black Swans of Life

The world is dangerous. Your neighborhood is probably dangerous too; at least it could be. The fascinating thing is that we often don’t think that dangerous incidents will happen to us. We think that a disaster, earthquake, or robbery may happen to someone else, but not to us!
According to Nassim Taleb in his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, the kind of events that cause you to think, It can happen, but not to me, is called a “black swan.” Taleb defines a black swan as an event that is a “low-probability, high-impact event” that hardly anyone would have anticipated.
The term is derived from the seventeenth-century European presumption that all swans must be white, because all historical records reported that swans had white feathers. In that context, a black swan was something that was impossible and couldn’t exist—until black swans were discovered in Australia some years later.
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Years ago I experienced a black swan event. On July 4, 1997, I was traveling with a group on an ADRA humanitarian trip. We made our planned stop in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on a Friday. That evening, as we were having worship in the hotel, a coup d’état began. For two days, as we were confined to the hotel, we heard and saw gunfire and felt the impact of fighting just a few blocks away. Ultimately we were evacuated with the aid of the U.S. Embassy. As we were escorted to the airport, we passed dead bodies, still lying in the streets.
You aren’t likely to be caught in a coup, or have to run from terrorists or tsunamis. But you might suddenly face the loss of a job, discover that your marriage is in trouble, face the loss of your health, or lose a loved one.
There’s a spiritual lesson here. When we think it couldn’t happen to us—think of Moses hitting the rock, Elijah running from Jezebel, or Peter denying Christ—it reminds us of what Paul wrote: “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).
So what will you do if a black swan event happens to you? A lot of advice for surviving low-probability, high-impact events is just common sense. But common sense is often the first thing we lose in an emergency. Thinking positively can be a lifesaver, while negative thoughts of hopelessness can be a killer.
The following three principles have been found to be of great assistance in black swan situations:
First, Do the next right thing. “Debriefings of survivors show repeatedly that they possess the capacity to break down the event they are faced with into small, manageable tasks,” writes psychologist John Leach. “Each step, each chunk, must be as simple as possible. Rather than fast-forwarding our thoughts to all the potential negative outcomes, we have to be able to break the problem down into manageable parts.”
Second, Develop a core truth you can live by before you need it. Steve Callahan, adrift in a raft on the open sea for 76 days, kept repeating the word “survival.” Over and over during the ordeal, he’d say, “Concentrate on now, on survival.” A positive message can keep your spirits up and your mind focused on doing the next right thing. A Christian may think, “Though He slay me, yet will I hope in him” (Job 13:15); “[Nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God” (Rom. 8:39), or “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him” (verse 28).
By contrast, a negative perspective can lead to despair and death. That’s why people have to be careful when they are under the HALT Effect: when they are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.
Third, Surrender but don’t give up. That may sound like a paradox. But the concept of surrender is at the heart of survival. Fear, especially the fear of death, can be a paralyzing force that keeps us from doing what’s necessary to survive. Good survivors realize that they may die, but they’re going to persevere anyway.
These principles and simple faith in God will work wonders for Christians dealing with the black swans of life.
Delbert W. Baker is a general vice president of the General Conference. This article was published March 24, 2011.